CASTLE ROCK, Colo. (CBS4) – Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock says the death of Harold Henthorn’s first wife, Lynn, in 1995 was not an accident, despite his department reaching that conclusion 20 years ago.
“Based upon the information I’ve been briefed on up to this date … I do not think it’s an accident,” Spurlock told CBS4 Investigator Brian Maass in an exclusive interview.
“I don’t think it was an accident and I think it’s very suspicious,” said Spurlock, who was sworn in as the Douglas County sheriff last month.
Harold Henthorn has been criminally charged with first-degree murder for the death of his second wife, Dr. Toni Henthorn, who died in September 2012 when she fell from a cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park during an anniversary hike with her husband. Harold Henthorn told investigators his wife slipped and fell, but prosecutors didn’t buy his explanation and charged him with murder last November. He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial in May.
That case then focused attention on the death of Henthorn’s first wife, Lynn, who also died in a remote location with her husband as the only witness. In that case, Harold Henthorn said he and his wife went for a drive on Highway 67 in Douglas County on May 6, 1995 bound for Deckers. Harold Henthorn told investigators that one of his tires felt “spongy,” and he stopped two or three times during the drive to check the tire.
Later in the evening, he stopped in a remote area known as “Casey’s Curve” to change the tire on the couple’s Jeep because it was soft — not flat. During the change he said his wife crawled under the Jeep, apparently to retrieve a lug nut or flashlight, when he said a jack gave way or slipped and the Jeep fell on his wife, crushing her.
Harold Henthorn collected nearly $500,000 in life insurance proceeds from his wife’s death.
The Douglas County coroner wrote “this is an accidental death” on May 9, two days after Lynn Henthorn died. Three days later, on May 12, six days after the death, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department followed suit, closing the case as an accidental death and ruling no criminal charges should be filed.
But Spurlock’s new pronouncement is a dramatic about face. He declined to specify what information leads him to now believe Lynn Henthorn’s death was not an accident. Douglas County investigators reopened the Lynn Henthorn death case two weeks after the death of Toni Henthorn in 2012. They say they have done 40 interviews in the past 27 months and continue to diligently work the case.
“That information leads my detectives to determine this is probably not an accident,” emphasized Spurlock.
But some are now asking if the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department mishandled the investigation into Lynn Henthorn’s death the first time around. Although the sheriff has sealed the Lynn Henthorn case file, citing their current active investigation, CBS4 obtained a copy of the file containing investigators notes and reports, summaries, witness statements, photos and drawings of the accident scene.
Ellis Armistead, a former Lakewood police homicide investigator and former chief criminal investigator for the 14th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, reviewed the case file and concluded “it was an incomplete investigation. There were a lot of things missing in the investigation and follow up.”
Among them, said Armistead, who is now a private investigator, Harold Henthorn told different sheriff’s investigators shifting versions of what happened on May 6, but they did not appear to pursue the discrepancies or attempt to pin Henthorn down.
“The first story about a certain case or matter becomes the theme for the investigation. That’s a big mistake that investigators often make,” said Armistead.
According to the case file, one deputy says Henthorn told him the couple was headed back to Sedalia from the mountains to have dinner when they pulled over to deal with the flat. Another Deputy — Jeffrey Bredehoeft — reported that Harold Henthorn told him they had been in the mountains and then drove east on Highway 67 to Sedalia where they had dinner at the Sedalia Grill.
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Bredehoeft says Henthorn then told the deputy that after dinner the couple then headed west again on Highway 67, retracing their route. The case file also has no notes or indications that any investigators or deputies ever went to the Sedalia Grill to check and see if anyone recalled the Henthorns stopping there the night of May 6, 1995.
Armistead says the contradictory stories should have been followed up.
“The biggest thing that jumps at me is the discrepancies in his story,” said Armistead. “I don’t see anyone confronting Mr. Henthorn on the inconsistencies. And there were a lot.”
Henthorn also told investigators several different and contradictory versions of precisely what he did after the Jeep fell on his wife. He told some that he gave her CPR and helped get her out from under the vehicle. He told others he did not give her CPR and was unsure of how she was pulled out from under the Jeep. One investigator said he looked over Henthorn’s hands and noticed no unusual marks, bruises or scratches that might have indicated an attempt to pull the car off his wife.
In an interview with a Douglas County investigator, Harold Henthorn said he had been having a lot of flat tires recently “due to construction in the area of their home. There is one tire with a nail in it in their garage at home.” The file indicates there was no follow up done to locate the tire Henthorn talked about to verify that part of his story.
Armistead told CBS4 he noticed numerous other red flags in the police report: although Harold Henthorn indicated to investigators his wife crawled under the car with a flashlight, when the flashlight was recovered from under the Jeep, it was in the off position.
“The flashlight was found under the car in the off position, which I find curious and I don’t see there was any follow up on if the flashlight even worked. He was not questioned about it.”
Henthorn told one deputy he spoke with that he had several jacks in the Jeep but the factory issued jack that came with the Jeep did not work properly. In handwritten notes, a deputy wrote, “Jack didn’t work — sprayed oil everywhere.” However, an inventory of the Jeep done by investigators turned up no oil or solvent that Henthorn indicated he used on the jack.
There is also no indication in the case file that investigators ever closely examined the Jeep’s factory issued jack to see if it was operating properly. There is also no indication investigators checked the soft tire that Henthorn took off his car to see if it had been punctured or not. They did check the tire pressure but did not appear to do further investigation on the tire itself.
In one investigator’s report, he noted that “on the right front passenger fender of the vehicle, towards the rear of the fender right behind the wheel well of the missing wheel, was an apparent partial foot print type mark.” However, there are no indications that investigators ever questioned Harold Henthorn about that foot print or how, and when, it got on the Jeep.
CBS4 also found that a key witness who expressed deep suspicion about what she saw that night was never interviewed at the time about her suspicions. Patricia Montoya was returning to the Denver metro area on Highway 67 that evening with a group of friends and family members. They stopped to help Henthorn and his stricken wife.
“He didn’t want us to touch her,” Montoya told CBS4. “It was a creepy feeling that he gave all of us.”
She said her group immediately began administering CPR to Lynn Henthorn, angering Harold Henthorn, who did not want anyone to touch his wife. And Montoya said when they placed their jackets over Lynn to keep her warm, “The husband wouldn’t take his coat off for her, he wouldn’t take the coat off to cover her. We all felt the same oddness. It was creepy, it was like he was trying to harm her,” said Montoya.
She said everyone in her group came away from that evening with the same feeling.
“We all said that he probably set it up to where that car fell on her and that was all our thoughts. We all thought the same thing. It didn’t seem like that was an accident.”
Several days after the incident Montoya made an appointment to go to the Douglas County Sheriff Department to retrieve her jacket. She asked the deputy who returned her jacket “if we had arrested the husband yet. No way that woman got under the car like that,” according to the deputies’ account.
But Montoya says even that statement did not prompt investigators to interview her about her suspicions.
“We were all very surprised. We all felt they would come and find us. And they never did.”
Montoya says only after the case was reopened in October 2012 did Douglas County investigators seek her out and extensively interview her about that night.
Ellis Armistead terms the investigation “disjointed. The investigation is shot through with problems.”
Spurlock did not appear to want to criticize or second guess the original investigation into Lynn Henthorn’s death.
“It’s very easy to point fingers. It’s more difficult to take the evidence that you have today and move forward, and that’s what we’re going to do. I think that if we had a chance to do it over again we would do things differently,” said Spurlock. “Things are always different when you look back. Hindsight is 20-20. It serves me no good to look back 20 years or 30 or 15 years and make a judgment on what was done at that point, because I can’t change that.”
Spurlock said investigators are employing new techniques and digging up new information on Lynn Henthorn’s death.
The Jeep involved in the incident and its contents were returned to Harold Henthorn shortly after his wife’s death. At least one civilian witness who was on scene that night has died. But the Douglas County sheriff told CBS4 he is optimistic that the reopened investigation will have a positive result.
“We feel very comfortable we will be able to proceed and seek some justice for Lynn.”
Read the document contained in the case file officially closing the case as an accident, six days after the incident occurred.